Two blokes, battered and bruised, are singing their hearts out in the inner sanctum of a jail. Arrested, falsely accused, flogged and in the stocks, they spend their evening singing the praises of God, not mouldering in self-pity.
A man in lonely exile on a craggy rock off the coast of Turkey hears the voice of Christ, calling him to share in the water of life and the worship of heaven.
A man in an upper room, with a group of friends, after a meal, prays for love-based unity amongst his followers.
This is the stuff of the Sunday after the Ascension, a day of waiting, of expectation, of promise. Waiting for the Spirit, expecting God to act, looking for the promised comforter and permanent presence of Almighty God, God as close to them as Jesus ever was. We know that the Holy Spirit is given – but we will wait until next Sunday to celebrate that. We know that visions of Heaven were written to a persecuted Church in Asia Minor, to give them encouragement and hope as their persecutors circled. Who knows whether Jesus actually prayed this prayer – it would take some writing down at the time – but if he didn’t, or hadn’t prayed something like it during his time here on earth, then we would be much the poorer for it.
What keeps Paul & Silas singing? The love of God. What keeps the pressurized Church around Ephesus holding on to their faith in the risen Christ, despite the threat of torture and death? The love of God. What leads Jesus to pray as he does, after the Passover meal and before the desolation of Gethsemane? The love of God.
All is there, all is encompassed in that one phrase. The love of God in human hearts, the love of God expressed in eternity, the love of God worked out eternally between the Father and the Son.
But what sort of love is this? It is sacrificial, it is self-giving, it is taking on the role of a slave for the benefit of the beloved. Moments before starting this prayer, Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, and commanded them to do the same, to love each other as he had loved them. The eternal love of the Father for the Son is interrupted in the Son’s obedience to the Father in taking human form and living amongst God’s creation as one of the created. The eternal love of the Son for the Father is expressed in healing and miracle, teaching and confrontation, prayer and self sacrifice on the cross. The eternal love of the Father for the Son is expressed in resurrection, conquering death, laying waste the scourge of fear, removing the scandal of corruption, and the eternal love of the Father for the Son and the Son for the Father is expressed in a desire for unity and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the fullness of God in all his children.
So what do we do with this?
We welcome, we baptise, we teach our children, we share together in bread and wine, we live out the life of Christ in practical ways, endeavouring to feed the hungry, house the homeless, minister to the sick, comfort the dying. We engage with the world, especially this coming Christian Aid Week, welcoming everyone because they complete us in our union with God.
We baptise, because Christ commanded us to just before his ascension, and because it is a sign of our unity – we are all one in Christ, as we are all baptised into him. How can we not be united if we have all been baptised into him? It must be said that the Church has managed to ruin this unity very well for very many years, but at heart, our baptism is our unity and needs to be acknowledged. When we baptise this child today, she joins the family of God – one family, not a divided family, but one family unit, united in Christ, united in its loving heavenly Father. This child’s baptism is as valid as ours, wherever we were baptised, as valid as her sister’s – who was baptised in Brussels, as valid as any baptism carried out anywhere in the world today. We are the ones who break the unity, we are the ones who have created the schisms, the differences, the power plays and the vested interests. God does not see any of them: rather, he waits patiently for us to come round to his point of view, to acknowledge his unity, his uniting love, for all time and for all people.
And everything we talked about last week, about welcome, warmth, the right fit, is relevant to our unity. Warmth of God’s love, the genuine welcome of a united body, feeling part of the whole – that is the lived and experienced expression of our unity in Christ – into which we welcome the baptised, the stranger, the newcomer, the enquirer, the returner, the lost.
And the purpose of all this? That God will be worshipped, that lives will be changed into the way God wants them to be, that the Church will be an effective witness and signpost to Christ. That is the purpose of our unity, that is where our unity takes us, and in living it out, it all makes sense.
It was noteworthy that Sadiq Khan made his public declarations as the new Mayor of London at Southwark Cathedral, in the presence of both Anglican & Roman Catholic bishops of Southwark, an Imam, a rabbi and many other faith representatives. That unity of purpose, that unity for the city of London, is an expression of the unity of God, that can be lived out in our common life too.
As we wait for Pentecost to arrive, let us love as Christ loved us, let us be united, as Christ is united with the Father, and may we give ourselves in acts of service and support, so that the world may believe.